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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Veterans Seward D. Nichols, Pete E. Padilla and Arlo L. Mueller (from left) live at the George E. Wahlen Veterans Home in Ogden.

OGDEN — Arlo Mueller was in the Okinawa campaign of World War II from start to finish — all three months of it that saw 12,000 American troops killed.

Try as he might, he can't remember much.

He knows he spent time on seven ships and six islands

and was overseas for 18 months. But beyond that, the details are fuzzy.

At 88, the Marine vet admits he is starting to slow down, but says this period in his life is truly golden.

"I've had an angel on my shoulder for 65 years and a monkey on my back," he said. "This is the most content I have been in years. The angels far outnumber the monkeys here."

"Here" is the George E. Wahlen Veterans Home in Ogden, where the 30-foot-tall Veterans Tribute Tower is slated to be dedicated Thursday at 3 p.m. in a special ceremony for Veterans Day.

The tower arrived at the center Monday from Cincinnati, Ohio, escorted by members belonging to the Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Utah chapters of the Patriot Guard Riders.

The program will feature a variety of speeches, a presentation of "American Soldier" and a wreath dedication. In addition, Melba Wahlen, the widow of George Wahlen, will push a remote control to activate the 250-pound bell's electronic carillon system to play a medley of musical selections.

The tower is but one of the crowning achievements that sets apart the Ogden home for veterans — a dream realized through the sweat and effort of a collective group of hard-headed patriots who believed past sacrifices of veterans deserve a present place of dignity.

"We set the bar pretty high," said Dennis McFall, deputy director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We demand respect, we demand that dignity," McFall said. "We want to make this a place of honor that our veterans deserve because what they have done for this country."

Those demands are being met at the Ogden home, where Seward Nichols, 80, says living there is "like living in a six-star hotel."

A heavy machine gunner who saw action in Korea at the Chosin Reservoir (the frozen Chosin, he says), Nichols, 80, sports a cheerful twinkle in his eyes that speaks of pranks past.

He's been here a few months, and says this is where he plans to spend the rest of his days.

"You have everything you need here with no problems. I can't kick a football anymore … but I eat too much food and gain too many pounds."

When the Ogden home opened in January, it added 120 beds for veterans to Salt Lake City's 81-bed facility on Foothill Drive.

Plans call for two more nursing homes for veterans and/or their spouses — one in Utah County and one in Washington County.

Both will be 100-bed facilities located on land VA officials hope to secure from donors.

In Ogden, 116 of the 120 beds are full, and in the past year the center has had 234 veterans or their spouses admitted.

McFall said that is an important number because while some of those residents may have died, others have been rehabilitated and sent home, or discharged to an assisted living center, where residents are not so dependent on round-the-clock care.

"That's a real positive because veterans don't go there just to die, they go there to live and be rehabilitated."

McFall and state veterans affairs director Terry Schow say the veterans homes serve a critical need because too often families don't seek nursing home care for their loved one because they can't afford it.

Schow said he will always remember the story of George Wahlen's father, a World War I veteran who had to turn himself into a pauper to qualify for Medicaid and nursing home care.

Far too often, veterans make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay for nursing home care.

The Veterans Administration, however, will pay up to 50 percent of the veteran's cost in some instances and in others even up to 100 percent, if they suffer from a service-connected disability.

That, McFall said, can be the difference between a veteran living out those last days in dignity — among kindred veterans who always have time for war stories — and feeling forgotten and like a burden.

"They deserve that respect," he said.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com